I’m really delighted today to be joining the blog tour for the latest novel by Lesley Downer, The Shogun’s Queen, published by Bantam Press in hardback and for kindle on 3rd November. I’ve already apologised to Lesley for not reading and reviewing, and I’ll apologise to those of you reading this post too – but I just knew other reviewers would do it so much better, and you’ll find many of them taking part in this blog tour. But Japan is steadily climbing my bucket list – even more so since being inspired by Lesley’s infectious enthusiasm – and I’m sure I’ll be reading her books before I do.
Let me share the story…
Only one woman can save her world from barbarian invasion but to do so will mean sacrificing everything she holds dear – love, loyalty and maybe life itself . . .
Japan, and the year is 1853. Growing up among the samurai of the Satsuma Clan, in Japan’s deep south, the fiery, beautiful and headstrong Okatsu has – like all the clan’s women – been encouraged to be bold, taught to wield the halberd, and to ride a horse. But when she is just seventeen, four black ships appear. Bristling with cannon and manned by strangers who to the Japanese eyes are barbarians, their appearance threatens Japan’s very existence. And turns Okatsu’s world upside down.
Chosen by her feudal lord, she has been given a very special role to play. Given a new name – Princess Atsu – and a new destiny, she is the only one who can save the realm. Her journey takes her to Edo Castle, a place so secret that it cannot be marked on any map. There, sequestered in the Women’s Palace – home to three thousand women, and where only one man may enter: the shogun – she seems doomed to live out her days.
But beneath the palace’s immaculate facade, there are whispers of murders and ghosts. It is here that Atsu must complete her mission and discover one last secret – the secret of the man whose fate is irrevocably linked to hers: the shogun himself . . .
I’m really thrilled that Lesley agreed to join me here on Being Anne…
Lesley, it’s a great pleasure to welcome you to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself to everyone?
Hello, Anne. First, thank you for inviting me to post on your blog today. I much appreciate it!
I’ve been a writer for thirty years. I went to Japan thirty five years ago, initially to teach English in a large industrial city called Gifu, and ended up falling in love with the place and staying five years. When I eventually came back to London I discovered that British people didn’t seem to know anything about Japan and I wanted to spread the news about this fascinating country. So I became a writer. I’ve written cookbooks, non-fiction and three novels, all dealing with Japan, and also spent ten years as a journalist, writing about all sorts of places and subjects. The Shogun’s Queen is my fourth novel and the prequel to the other three in The Shogun Quartet. I live in London with my husband who is a scientist and also a writer. And when I’m not writing I practise yoga!
Can you tell me more about how The Shogun Quartet fits together?
I was inspired to write about old Japan when I discovered that the shogun, the military ruler, had had what was effectively a harem of three thousand women, where he was the only man who could enter. In all my time in Japan I’d never even heard of it. Then I discovered that the women had been sworn to secrecy. Almost nothing was written about it so I let my imagination go to work. The novel that came out of that was The Last Concubine.
By the time I finished it I was deeply engrossed in mid-nineteenth century Japan. It was an extraordinary time, when the country changed in a matter of years from a feudal state to a modern one. There was a brutal civil war and a lot of fighting and people’s lives were turned upside down. It was the end of the era of the shoguns and the beginning of a new and very different one. The Last Concubine takes place in the 1860s. My next novel, The Courtesan and the Samurai, is set right at the end of the 1860s, while the third, Across a Bridge of Dreams (The Samurai’s Daughter in paperback) is the story of the daughter of the Last Samurai (as in the film with Tom Cruise!) and takes place in the 1870s. Some of the characters appear several times but basically the novels all stand alone.
Somewhere along the way I came across Atsu’s heart-rending story. It meant taking a step back in time but I desperately wanted to tell it. I felt it would also be the foundation stone of the whole series. I’d thought I was writing a trilogy but it turned out I was writing a quartet!
I’d love to know more about your love affair with Japan. I know you lived there for a while, but why did Japan spark such a passion and inspire you to write about it?
As I told you, my life has revolved around Japan for thirty odd years. One thing that drew me there was the Penguin Book of Japanese Literature. It’s excerpts of translations from the whole of Japanese literature, from the earliest love poetry through the Tale of Genji, kabuki plays and haiku and on to the nineteenth century – a bit like a sampling of English literature from Chaucer to Yeats. I read it from cover to cover. It gave me a flavour of the unique quality of Japan – its beauty, delicacy, passion and strangeness.
I first lived there for five years. I taught English and immersed myself in Japanese culture, studied tea ceremony and flower arrangement and became a great fan of kabuki and Noh. I also taught myself Japanese and read as much Japanese literature as I could in translation.
Japan is endlessly intriguing. It’s a bit like Looking Glass Land. It looks modern and western – it’s very wealthy – yet underneath the surface it feels very foreign, even when you speak Japanese as I now do. And the more you know of the history and the literature the more the country opens up to reveal its secrets. That was the secret heart that I fell in love with. And even after I came home I kept looking for ways to get back there again and again.
I’ve just spent a fascinating hour exploring your excellent website. Can you tell me just a little more about the Women’s Palace and those who lived there?
The Women’s Palace was a place of enormous luxury and beauty but it was also a prison. At its pinnacle it was home to three thousand women – far more than populated the Topkapi Harem in Istanbul – but only one man, the shogun. Once you entered you would never leave. Yet the women wielded enormous power. There were conspiracies, murders, even hauntings. Women sneaked out to meet their lovers or smuggled a lover in in a trunk, though the punishment was crucifixion for the lovers and hara-kiri for the father of the offending woman, even if he knew nothing of his daughter’s offence.
It was a place of enormous beauty where the women wore kimonos more lavish than any commoner could dream of. They spent their days playing the incense guessing game, arranging flowers, playing the shell matching game, going cherry blossom viewing in spring and mushroom collecting in autumn, and all without ever leaving the palace grounds.
The three key events in their day were the daily audiences when the shogun came in to mix with his women. If he wished to spend the night there with a concubine some of the fearsome elders would sleep right in the same room to make sure the concubine didn’t whisper any requests in his ear – like favour for her family. It was gilded but it was a cage all the same.
Japan in the nineteenth century isn’t a subject area with which many readers will be particularly familiar. Is it a difficult thing to bring the history to life?
I’ve been steeped in 19th century Japan for such a long time I write about it almost without thinking. For me it’s alive – so I suppose that makes it easier for me to bring it to life for my readers.
Those were the years when westerners arrived in Japan for the very first time, after it had been entirely closed to western visitors for 250 years. Those first visitors knew they were unlocking something extraordinary and they also knew that their very presence there would change the place for ever. Almost all wrote books or kept detailed diaries of their everyday lives which are absolutely fascinating to read. They also painted pictures and took daguerreotypes and photographs. Even though Japan has changed enormously, when I read their books I can easily imagine myself back there.
Added to which the real life Atsu was so brave and feisty and resourceful that she was much like a modern western woman …!
I made the very difficult decision not to read and review your books – with apologies – but only because there are others who review books with a historical setting far better than I do. Do you have a “typical reader” in mind as you write? A certain background, or age group maybe? Are they exclusively female?
Funnily enough quite a few of my readers are men. Besides women’s fiction I’ve also written a biography of three generations of a Japanese family, so one sub section of readers would be people interested in Japan. My stories take place at a time of war which men might enjoy (and my husband makes sure I get all the guns and cannons right!). A friend of mine works for Yoko Ono and I asked him to give her a copy of one of my books but he decided it was too romantic. Though she’s a woman she doesn’t like romantic fiction at all!
But of course you’re right – my readers are mainly women, perhaps slanted towards people interested in history and Asia and exotic places and times.
I’m intrigued…does it help or hinder you to be married to an author? I have a mental image of you sitting at adjacent desks, trying out paragraphs on each other…
If we had adjacent desks either our marriage or our writing careers would never survive. One or other would have to go! We have separate studies on separate floors. Mine is the eyrie at the top of the house, my husband’s is directly underneath me. We often text each other rather than running up and down.
He’s always my first reader. When I think something I’ve written is ready to go I send it down to him to read. That’s when I can mentally file it away as ‘finished’. I incorporate or reject his suggestions before I send the draft to my agent or editor. He does the same with me. We’ve read each other’s books several times from cover to cover – which means that he is now a bit of a Japan expert and I know a lot more than I used to about Einstein, physics and black holes!
What’s next for you? With the quartet now complete, are you planning to write more about the same period of Japan’s history?
My first book was a cookbook, Japanese Vegetarian Cooking, and I also did a Japanese cooking series on BBC2 back in 1991, called A Taste of Japan. I’m now working on a book to be called Mottainai – ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ – Lesley Downer’s Mindful Kitchen. It’s an ecological approach to food and cooking – how to cook and also save the planet, with many delicious largely but not entirely vegetarian Japanese recipes.
Lesley, thank you so much for joining me – and thanks too to Hannah Bright from Transworld Books for her support for the tour and everyone involved in it.
Lesley Downer first went to Japan more than thirty years ago and her life has revolved around Japan ever since. She is the author of many books on Japan, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West and the first three in The Shogun Quartet, a quartet of novels: The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai and The Samurai’s Daughter. Her new novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is a prequel, chronologically the first in the quartet, and begins at the moment when Black Ships are sighted off the coast of Japan.